Newsom’s budget serves union leaders at the expense of students

Gov. Gavin Newsom has once again sacrificed school-age children at precisely the moment they need him most in order to help the largest of his political backers, the state’s powerful teacher’s union.

Last week, Newsom signed a state spending bill that guarantees pay and benefits for teachers and other union education employees – adults, it goes without saying – regardless of whether their schools open this fall, open part-time, or don’t open at all; whether students show up or do not.

In other words, it continues what’s already made California’s public education system an international laughingstock, one that rewards government employees without accountability to the students and families they ostensibly serve.

The peculiar mechanism by which he accomplishes all this: he will base each school’s funding on the number of students who attended that school at the beginning of last year.

That may sound like a dull math formula, but it’s created out of pure cynicism. Because between last school year and this one came Covid-19, of course. And when the pandemic struck, union leaders simply directed teachers to abandon their classrooms. Even unions that finally accepted the possibilities of distance-learning tools like video conferencing refused to require their members to use them. In Los Angeles, United Teachers of LA president Alex Caputo-Pearl fought to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of hours teachers spent with their students online, and went so far as to insist that teachers be freed from showing up online all — “encouraged, but not required, to use live video platforms such as Zoom as part of their teaching,” he bragged in announcing the deal.

In response, frustrated parents have increasingly chosen to homeschool, or to enroll their kids in private or charter schools. This might hurt the school’s they abandoned — and that might undermine the union’s hold on public education. But the governor’s spending bill saved them by ignoring the student exodus.

Consider the example of Sycamore Creek Community Charter in Huntington Beach. That school has seen enrollment double – from 63 students in February 2020 (pre-COVID) to 129 students today. But the governor’s new budget caps funding at the school’s lower February level. Those additional 66 students will not be funded. This means Sycamore Creek will not have the funds to add teachers, staff, or supplies for the additional students. That money will go instead to nearby union-dominated traditional public schools whose failure to teach during the pandemic drove parents to the exits in the first place.

The governor’s plan would seem to be more generous with new charter schools. But look deeply. Orange County Classical Academy in the city of Orange will welcome its first class this August. (Full disclosure: I am one of the school’s founders.) Rather than funding OCCA’s actual enrollment — a whopping 360 students and a waiting list at every grade level – the governor’s plan funds OCCA, and all other new charter schools, using a formula based on the average statewide attendance rate for all traditional public schools in California, regardless of what the actual rates are at a school.

How do such terrible political decisions come about? Follow the money: The California Teachers Association and its local unions are the largest donors to California politics and to the California Democratic Party. Not coincidentally, that’s the party that controls every statewide office and the state legislature.

Money also explains the unions’ — and therefore the political establishment’s – hostility to free public charter schools. The majority of charter schools are not unionized. Every teacher who joins a non-unionized charter school represents a loss to the union of about $1,000 per year in dues payments.

Parents, educators, and concerned school board members must tell the governor to stop serving his unions at the expense of our children. Please call the governor’s office at (916) 445-2841 and ask him to fully fund all schools based on their enrollment — and do it now. The children can’t wait another year for the adults in Sacramento to learn their lesson.

Jeffrey I. Barke, M.D., is a cofounder of Orange County Classical Academy and the school’s board chair. He is a former Los Alamitos Unified School District trustee, and a member of the advisory board of California Local Elected Officials (CLEO).